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Though this article in today’s New York Times relates to items taken in a different war, it raises issues connected to the Boxer Uprising as well:

China is stepping up the pressure on Christie’s auction house to withdraw two bronzes from its sale of Yves Saint Laurent’s vast collection next week in Paris, saying they were looted from the imperial Summer Palace near Beijing nearly 150 years ago.

The two Qing dynasty bronze animal heads, one depicting a rabbit and the other a rat, are believed to have been part of a set comprising 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac that were created for the imperial gardens during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century.

China views the relics as a significant part of its cultural heritage and a symbol of how Western powers encroached on the country during the Opium Wars. The relics were displayed as fountainheads at the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan, until it was destroyed and sacked by British and French forces in 1860.

At a press briefing in Beijing last week, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said the two bronzes should be returned to China because they had been taken by “invaders.” And a group of Chinese lawyers says it plans to file a lawsuit this week in Paris seeking to halt or disrupt the sale. But Christie’s says the sale is legal and plans to go ahead with the auction on Monday through Wednesday in Paris, where the two bronze items could fetch as much as $10 million to $13 million apiece.

In both Tianjin and Beijing, there was extensive looting in the summer of 1900. As one American Marine remembered:

Soldiers of all nations joined the orgy…Men of the allies staggered through the streets, arms and backs piled high with silks and furs, and brocades, with gold and silver and jewels.[1]

A brisk trade in looted goods broke out, with open air markets buying and selling goods.

This sometimes led to particularly odd moments. Read the rest of this entry »

The Chinese minister to Washington, Wu Tingfang, continued on what seems to have been a sustained wooing of the American elites, attempting to make his (and his wife’s) personal charm strengthen China’s international weakness. After his late January appearance at the American Asiatic Association dinner, he appeared again at Delmonico’s steakhouse, but this time for the 28th Anniversary dinner of the 475626. New York Public Library Silk Association. [1]

Then, it was announced in the Times that he and his wife would attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “Rooms will be engaged for the party,” the Times announced, “which will consist of the Minister, his wife, and a retinue of thirty servants, at the St. Charles Hotel.” The article then moves from a straightforward account of the Minister’s future plans to a rhapsodic account of his and his wife’s popularity in Washington:

Minister Tingfang, of whom much has been said, is among the foremost of the foreign Minister at the capital, and both he and his wife are great favorites in Washington society. His wife is a representative of the high-class Chinese lady, and is finely educated. Her gowns, which are all of the prevailing Oriental style, are made in China, and have been the cause of much comment when she appeared in public. Both the Minister and his wife speak English fluently, and are entertaining conversationalists.”

The article finished by intimating that the Minister was the “confidential advisor” of a “great Chinese statesman. [2] Tingfang and his wife were, to the Times, exotics on display in normal surroundings, “entertaining conversationalists” dressed in the “prevailing Oriental style.”

Meanwhile, back in China… Read the rest of this entry »

From W.A.P. Martin, a minister and participant in the siege of Beijing:

“On reaching New York in the actual costume which I wore during the siege, I called a boy to carry my packages, my son Newell having gone to the wrong station to meet me.

As I was carrying a gun, the lad remarked: ‘You must have been hunting somewhere?’

‘Yes,’ said I, “in Asia, beyond the sea.’

‘What kind of game?’ he inquired.

Read the rest of this entry »

The China on display in late January 1900 had two faces. It was a country wracked by “internal convulsions” and political intrigue, and yet the “greatest potential market of the world.” The New York Times wrote of both Chinas in the ten days to the end of January. To the Times both Chinas were mysterious and unknowable and the paper wrote in a way that made its feeling palpably clear. Stories were full of hedges, that revealed the editorial confusion: it was “almost safe to predict” something about China, or “members of the imperial household…are practically unknown.”[1]

One of the results of this was a certain credulity on the part of the paper, a willingness to accept or write things that were self-evidently silly without thinking through them. Thus, the Times wrote that in 1898 the rumors of the Emperor of China’s death had been proven “unfounded” but immediately the paper wrote that “it has been stated on good authority that [The Emperor] was cruelly used, and even imprisoned and half-starved.” [2] There was no apparent realization of the irony of discounting one (past) rumor while instantaneously propagating another one. Even more egregiously was the article which confidently “reported that a French naval force has already reached Peking.” [3] This would have been an impressive feat, given that Beijing was land-locked. One can only imagine the sight of French battleships puffing smoke over the north China plain.

Read the rest of this entry »

Simply too good not to share:

Let those who are inclined to cavil at the new role of the country in the world’s affairs remember that the moment is rapidly approaching, if it has not already arrvied, when the future of the world’s civilization will be at stake. Will it be a world in which the English-speaking, with its high standard of life and liberty, will prevail; or a world in which the despot and the slave–shall we leave out the ‘e’ and call it Slav?–will dictate the future of the spheres?

From Leslie’s Weekly, August 11, 1900. Quoted in William Duiker, Cultures in Collision: The Boxer Rebellion (San Rafael, Calif. Presidio, 1978): 92.

In the second ten days of January 1900, the news from China that reached New York was all of matters military and diplomatic. There was no further mention of the Boxers and, in fact, mentions of China occupied themselves almost entirely with the aggressive (if not thuggish) maneuverings of the great powers and China’s shifting ability to resist them. China was not so much being conquered as it was being organized by the western powers, if organized by violence, by intimidation, and by edict. Or, at least, that’s the way the New York Times presented it.

China—to use a technical term—was not even an other. It was a bare playing field on which others warred in sporting matches that went back and forth but were never quite ended.

Thus the Times declared, on January 17, 1900, that “any power which chooses may, according to our contention, maltreat the Chinese as much as it choose and carve up their inheritance to suit itself. All that we ask is that we shall hereafter be permitted to trade there, as now, on the footing of the most favored nations, which is to say, on the same footing as the conquering and partitioning power.” A conquered part of China would simply be a “certain tract” which the European power had the “right to police at its own expense.” In that sense, China seemed property to be mortgaged and owned and tended. The Chinese themselves were not civilized and the model for dealing with them was the British one: “It has paid her to subdue savages in quest of new markets.”

Read the rest of this entry »

For an explanation of the following, see this.

In the New York Times in early January 1900, China appeared several times, in a number of roles. There was China, the state, much fought over by the imperial powers of the world, ancient, decayed, helpless to resist, and ripe for exploitation. There was China, the nation, a subject of fascination and dismay, whose people lived lives of squalor amid the elegant splendor of thousands of years of history. There was the actual China, in some ways the least interesting of all from the Times’ perspective, where real things happened to real people.

The Chinese state emerged as a helpless pawn which the western powers moved back and forth to suit. China itself became a stage in which plays not of its writing were acted out. Thus on January 13, 1900, an article appeared talking of war between Russia and Japan over Russian influence in northern China and Korea. Japan, the Times confidently asserted, have “recently given an order in England for 100,000 suits of warm Winter clothing for Japanese soldiers in preparation for a campaign” to prevent “Russian ascendancy in Northern China.” China’s wishes were simply irrelevant and beyond consideration or mention.[1]

And yet China was of great interest as a nation. The same paper that ignored China altogether in its consideration of international actors had published a week earlier a laudatory review of a book about Chinese society, Village Life in China.Village-Life-China.jpg.jpeg “That wonderful people…this great race” was how the Times referred to the Chinese, with their “numerous admirable qualities.” China as a nation was portrayed not only as worthy of study but simply too big and complex to be comprehensible. There are several interesting tensions in the article. China’s complexity and history was held in explicit counterpoise to its current degraded condition. China, the article made clear, may have had a deeper history (deeper implicitly than America’s) but its people lived in poverty. Chinese society had “many disabilities” which “retard [its] advancement in modern civilization.” The book suggested that only “Christianity in its best form is the only agency which will cure the defects which exist,” though the review article, interestingly, is quick to disavow (at least partially) that conclusion by saying that “the reader must not imagine that this volume is a missionary report.” [2]

The only article with specific people was the shortest. “Missionary Murdered in China,” announced a Times story of January 5th. “The Rev. Mr. Brooks of the Church Missionary Society…was captured…and murdered Dec. 3 by members of a seditious society called ‘Boxers,’ who have been active lately, destroying many villages and killing native Christians. The Governor of the province had dispatched a force of cavalry to the scene of the disturbances, but the soldiers arrived too late to save Mr. Brooks’s life.” [3]

The article was spare, with no details about the killing except the date. It assumed that the reader would have no idea who the Boxers were, introducing them in quick detail and positioning them as anti-Christian. The Chinese government was portrayed as friendly, if ineffectual, and there was little in the way of positioning the situation, with no real emphasis even on the obvious storyline of a “seditious” group moving from attacking “native” Christians to a western one. Someone had been murdered in a far-off place: important enough to mention in the paper, but not important enough for much elaboration or emphasis.

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